HC Deb 30 November 1955 vol 546 cc2445-51

10.10 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Nigel Birch)

I beg to move— That this House approves the proposal made by the Minister of Works for re-erecting the Buxton Memorial Drinking Fountain, a copy of which proposal was laid before this House on 15th November. The procedure which we are following tonight is rather unusual, and is necessitated by an Amendment to the Parliament Square Act, 1949, which was moved in another place by the late Lord Simon on behalf of the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1949 the then Government put forward a scheme for redesigning Parliament Square, and that scheme necessarily involved moving the Buxton Memorial Fountain. When this was announced there was quite a lot of opposition, particularly from those associated with the Anti-Slavery Society. That, I think, was not unnatural, because this memorial was erected to the leaders of the movement in Parliament which resulted in 1834 in the emancipation of slaves in the British Colonies.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) was wrong today when he said that the movement for the abolition of slavery in the Colonies came from outside, and not from inside, this House. It came from inside the House and was entirely a Parliamentary movement. That movement was described by the historian Lecky as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations. The fountain not only commemorated Fowell Buxton himself—it was called the Buxton Memorial Drinking Fountain after him—but many of the other leaders whose names are inscribed on it—Wilberforce, Macaulay. Brougham, and others.

It was, therefore, natural that the moving of the fountain should cause some distress. What, in effect, Lord Simon's Amendment said was, "You are moving our fountain. You must put it up again. If the Minister of Works of the day thinks that it is wrong to put it up in Parliament Square, he must lay a Paper, and his action must be approved by both Houses of Parliament." That is why I am, at this moment, moving this Motion.

The Act was passed, the fountain was moved, and since then a great deal of discussion has taken place as to what should be done with it and where, if anywhere, it should be re-erected. A great many different suggestions have been made. There have even been suggestions of a completely modern design—a new memorial altogether. In all this controversy there has. I think, been fairly general, but by no means universal, agreement on one thing—that it would be wrong to re-erect the fountain in Parliament Square itself.

The reason for that, which I gave in the Paper that I laid, is simply that the design adopted for Parliament Square—a design by the architect, Mr. Wornum, which, if I may say so, was a very good one—is a simple design on classical lines, and it is difficult to fit into that classical design a memorial in the Victorian-Gothic taste. There has been, therefore, fairly general agreement that it would be wrong to put the memorial back in Parliament Square.

On the other hand, the Anti-Slavery Society has always argued, I think with justice, both that the fountain must be re-erected and that it ought to be re-erected near the Palace of Westminster because it was in the Palace of Westminster that the struggle was fought and won. The Society has also pointed out that it would be very strange if in Parliament Square we had a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator of the American salves, while our own emancipators, who performed their task earlier and without the shedding of blood, were not commemorated near where that struggle was fought.

I think the Society's case is just and right, and it appealed to two of my predecessors. Both the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), when he was Minister of Works, and my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Education gave conditional undertakings that the fountain would be re-erected in Victoria Tower Gardens. Proposals which have been announced and approved for the re-design of the Victoria Tower Gardens give us the chance of carrying out these undertakings.

Considerable doubts have been expressed from time to time upon aesthetic grounds. Some people do not like the fountain. I think that is a point which a great many people have taken. I think it is true to say that a few years ago nothing could have been more unfashionable than Victorian Gothic. But the whirligig of time brings its revenges, and nowhere more than in artistic matters. I have been surprised and even startled by the number of representations I have had from the most various people among those who take an interest in the world of the arts, in favour of the fountain being re-erected, and in particular in favour of its re-erection in Victoria Tower Gardens.

My chief architect has got out a design for doing that, and the model has been displayed in the Library. I dare say that many hon. Members have seen it. I think that the design is a good one, and that the fountain will look very well in the setting which we have proposed.

Therefore, if the House approves this Motion tonight, I think we shall be doing an act of justice—which we are in law bound to do—to the Anti-Slavery Society, and we shall also be doing something to the honour of Parliament as well as to improve the appearance of Victoria Tower Gardens.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

Nobody would say that this was a matter of major political importance, but I think it is proper that I should, on behalf of the Opposition, welcome the Motion which the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works has moved. I do so with a great deal of pleasure.

The Buxton Memorial Fountain is an old friend of many of us who are in the House tonight, and those of us who have been coming here for a long time in one capacity or another have admired the Buxton Memorial Fountain for many years. I think most of us will look back with some sentimental affection to the days when it used to stand on the corner of Little George Street, as I think it was called at that time.

I personally, and I have no doubt many other hon. Members, never think of the abolition of slavery without remembering the inscription on that memorial saying how it had been erected by the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. The right hon. Gentleman very properly said that on the aesthetic aspects of the problem many views have been expressed. I remember when we discussed it six years ago that Sir Edward Keeling, whose loss from the House all of deplore, observed that the memorial had no artistic merit whatsoever, and he said that he hoped that it would be destroyed by the Ministry of Works.

On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) said that it was of the quintessence of Victorian design and thoroughly approved of it. The Fine Arts Commission has given the memorial its blessing and has helped to find a setting worthy of the memorial.

If we have one criticism, it is of the long delay there has been in bringing this Motion before the House. It was in 1949 that my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) suggested in the House that the Victoria Tower Gardens would provide a suitable setting for the memorial. If that six years' delay has helped to contribute to the very good decision which has been reached, then I think all of us would welcome the delay and excuse it, and indeed express the wish that similar consideration were given to all the memorials in London which have some Parliamentary importance.

There is one of Cobden which stands in Camden Town, enmeshed in the network of trolley bus wires, surrounded by sign posts, ventilator shafts and all sorts of other encumbrances. It is a most unworthy setting for a statue of that kind. Fortunately, the Ministry of Works looks after these statues much better than some other authorities in the Metropolitan area. We appreciate the care the Ministry gives in matters of this kind.

This memorial is of special Parliamentary importance. It was erected by a Member of this House to other Members of the House who had taken part in and had won one of the greatest battles in Parliamentary history.

It is, I think, a suitable decision which we are taking tonight that we should keep this memorial near to the Palace of Westminster. I hope the House will welcome the Motion.

10.22 p.m.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)

I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the care and assiduity with which he has looked into this matter and the provision which he has made. I am certain that my right hon. Friend is a lover of art in all its forms throughout many generations, not least in the Victorian period. The decision which he has taken tonight will be reflected by all right hon. and hon. Members who care for the preservation of works of art and our great historical monuments.

I approve of the decision which has been taken, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the great care he has exercised in this matter. One matter worries me. I think I am right in saying that this is so ancient a Victorian memorial that it also consists of an old-fashioned type of drinking mug, with chain, fountains of water and so on. The people of this generation who frequent the Victoria Gardens are more apt to buy bottles of lemonade and Coca Cola. I think we might dispense with these rather insanitary and old-fashioned drinking cups and chains and have simply the gaily fashioned fountain in the centre to remind us of the past. If my right hon. Friend will agree to that, I am sure that the House will agree to it, too.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Why should the noble Lord advocate drinking "pop" or Coca Cola? Would it not be wiser to change the type of water appliance?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

I do not think that arises on this Question.

Dr. Stross

Could we not change the method by which the water is provided, so as to make it quite hygienic, by using the method of pressing a button and obtaining a stream of water?

10.24 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I wish I could join in the enthusiasm which has manifested itself towards this Motion, and I wish I could share with my hon. Friends the approval for the proposals and the satisfaction which has manifested itself by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. I cannot.

Some years ago I ventured to intervene upon this theme which struck me as possessing a good deal more relevance to contemporary issues than many of the matters then being discussed.

I formed a regard for this monument which was shared by large numbers. I am not going into details, but the monument presented undoubted qualities to those who approached Parliament Square from St. James's Park. It was true that upon close examination in detail it was found to be somewhat gimcrack, but its presentation, nonetheless, possessed as I thought undoubted distinction. Because that was so, and because I felt as I did about the memorial, I ventured to intervene several years ago in the discussion upon its disposal.

Nobody was more surprised than I to find upon the following day on my table a letter from Lord Simon in which he was kind enough to express his agreement with the propositions I had presented and his sympathy for them. I am not prepared, of course, to have this Motion carried to the Division, but I would wish it to be on the records that the state of mind in which I accept it is not with the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) and right hon. and hon. Members opposite, but a mood of melancholy acquiescence.

Resolved, That this House approves the proposal made by the Minister of Works for re-erecting the Buxton Memorial Drinking Fountain, a copy of which proposal was laid before this House on 15th November.